which came first

Charlie had a fall a few days ago, but despite the pain in his back he seems pretty sanguine. Until I ask him if he has any family living nearby who might be able to help with the shopping.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I don’t. Not any more. I used to have a son. But he died.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘It was a long time ago. Fifty years or more. I still get upset when I think about it. They say Time’s a great healer, but I don’t know. It feels like yesterday.
‘He must have been young when he died.’
‘Eighteen. Coming up.’
‘What was it? Cancer?’
‘Nah. He was murdered.’
‘Murdered? Oh my God!’
‘He was such a good, kind boy, too. So bright and helpful. Everybody said so. He was just one of those people who didn’t have any sharp corners. Do you know what I mean? He’d always put himself out for you, never mind what it was. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you said you liked it. When he was taken, all my faith in the world just up and left. It was like my future had been snatched away and left me with nothing. They may as well have killed me, too.’
‘So what happened?’
‘The funny thing was, everyone kept telling me He’s too quiet. You should let him go out in the world, find his own feet. I shouldn’t have listened. But I did. He started going out a lot, staying out. And he fell in with a bit of a rough crowd. I didn’t like the look of them much, but he said they weren’t as bad as all that. He always did see the good in people. And anyway he was having an adventure. Next thing I know, he’d gone to a party one weekend, and that was that. That was the last I saw of him. He just disappeared. I was frantic, y’know? But no-one had seen hide nor hair of him. I went through the motions reporting him gone and everything, but nothing happened. Anyway, about a year later there was a knock on the door and when I open it there were these two guys in black suits standing there. We’re from the Coroner’s Office they said. And d’you know what I said? I said No thank you. Not today. I didn’t know what a coroner was! I thought they’d come round to sell me insurance or something. Can we come in? they said. It’s about your son. So I let them in, and the first one, he goes over to the mantelpiece, picks up a picture of Ronnie and he holds it up, and he says Is this your son? So I says Yes. And he nods at the other guy, and he says Well in that case, Mr Franklin, we’re sorry to have to tell you that your son has died. His body had turned up in a disused parking lot, stripped of everything, his wallet, his clothes, his shoes, the lot. No-one knew who he was. He was in a bit of a state, and of course, he’d never been to the dentist in his life, so they didn’t even have that. But they tracked me down somehow. And d’you know what? The worst thing about it – I think it was the worst thing – is this little, throwaway thing one of them said. He said We think he probably died of a heart attack, and there are signs of a serious assault, but it’s impossible to say which came first, the heart attack or the assault. And that’s bothered me more than anything. It kind of flips over and over in my head. Because I don’t know what’s worse – someone who’d beat you up leave you to die, or someone who’d watch you die and then beat you up. I mean – why would anyone do that?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a terrible thing.’
‘It is a terrible thing. Which came first? Fifty years, and I still don’t know what it means.’

2 thoughts on “which came first

  1. It definitely catches you out, Sabine! You get into such a routine of asking very personal questions – because you need to know what kind of care support they have, for example – that you can get a little desensitised to the implications. Which in Charlie’s case were tragically profound, to say the least. All I could do was be open and let him talk (this account is a very condensed & anonymised version). I got the impression he did have a good level of support both professionally & socially, though, so that was okay.

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